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   Chapter 12 THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI — GOUZEAUCOURT.

A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 22536

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


(November 24th to December 1st, 1917.)

It was pleasant enough to wake up in the musty candle-lit dug-out, sniff at the frying bacon, and murmur?-?

"Yesterday we helped the 40th Division to take Bourlon Wood. Two of my tanks crossed the ridge and entered Bourlon village. All my tanks have returned. A thoroughly sound and altogether satisfactory day's work...."

The morning was fine and fresh, with a nip in the air. We breakfasted cheerily, and then, after a last look at the great wood, unchanged and imperturbable, I started to tramp the six miles back to Havrincourt Wood, leaving the others to follow with those tanks that had not come in until dusk on the preceding day. It was an exhilarating walk through the ruins of Havrincourt, past the enormous crater in the road, over the old trenches, and through Trescault, since transport and troops were pouring forward.

But in the afternoon we were told that the battle of the 23rd had been a most incomplete and melancholy success. "E" Battalion, which had attacked along the ridge from the direction of M?uvres, had lost the majority of their tanks. Five of their tanks were still missing, and their casualties had been ghastly. On our right the fighting had been heavy indeed. Fontaine had remained in German hands, and the 2nd Tank Brigade had been quite unable, in consequence, to complete their enveloping movement. Finally, at dawn the enemy had counter-attacked and retaken the northern half of the wood itself.

It is not for me to relate the history of the pitiful struggle during the next few days, when the great wood was drenched with gas and half-destroyed by shells. I did not see Bourlon again until exactly a year later, when I passed to the north of it on my way from Arras to Cambrai for a court-martial. If only the cavalry could have taken it on the 20th, according to plan, when it was defended merely by a handful of machine-guns!

We began to make ourselves thoroughly comfortable in Havrincourt Wood, and "temporary structures" arose with astounding rapidity. My own Armstrong Hut, which had followed me for four months like a faithful dog, arrived at last, together with certain kit which had been left at Meaulte, so that we might not be over-burdened in our pursuit of the enemy through the streets of Cambrai. We felt a trifle guilty in our luxury as we watched the grim infantry going forward to the dark terrors of Bourlon, and my men in their kindness would give them part of their rations, for, during these days, the rations of the infantry were painfully short. But war is war, and, putting Bourlon out of our minds, we made an expedition to Bapaume, had tea at the officers' club, a hair-cut and a shampoo, bought potatoes and eggs and dined sumptuously.

Only an inspection on the 29th depressed us, for nothing can be more depressing than an inspection. As usual, we had such a lengthy wait before the arrival of the General that, with all due respect, we thought of little except the end of his speech. And, if we had been Romans, we should have cried out in horror, for, during the parade, an enemy aeroplane brought down in flames one of our observation balloons. It was a most inauspicious omen, and that evening I went to bed with an unquiet mind....

We had received orders to entrain within the week at Fins, a railhead about three miles south of Metz-en-Couture, and we had been preparing our tanks for the journey. None of them were now in a proper condition to fight, and most of them needed a thorough overhaul before we could attempt even the short trek to Fins with any feeling of security. Our work had been delayed further by a temporary stoppage in the supply of spare parts. This, however, gave us little cause for anxiety, since there was a whole week in front of us.

Early in the morning of the 30th, Battalion Headquarters, with all our motor-cars and lorries, left Havrincourt Wood for Meaulte, our destination and rumoured winter quarters.

If my narrative is to be truthful, I must confess that I was asleep in bed when the Colonel departed, and that we did not breakfast until 9.30 A.M. We had barely sat down when we noticed that strange things were happening, and we walked out of the wood into the open to investigate. We could hear distinctly bursts of machine-gun fire, although the line should have been six miles away at least. German field-gun shells?-?we could not be mistaken?-?were falling on the crest of a hill not three-quarters of a mile from the camp. On our left, that is to the north, there was heavy gun fire. On our right, in the direction of Gouzeaucourt, shells were falling, and there were continuous bursts of machine-gun fire.

We had not fully realised what was happening, when a number of wounded infantrymen came straggling past. I questioned them. They told me that the enemy was attacking everywhere, that he had broken through near Gouzeaucourt, capturing many guns, and was, to the best of their belief, still advancing.

This was cheerful news and made me think hard. Look at this rough diagram?-?

Our line on the 29th formed a bulge or salient. I knew the enemy had attacked at A and had broken through. I suspected from the heavy gun fire that he was attacking at B. If these two attacks were successful, our troops inside the bulge would be surrounded and the two attacking forces would meet in the neighbourhood of the + on the diagram.21 But the + also represented my own position on the morning of the 30th, with a batch of tanks in every stage of disrepair and the Colonel by now at Meaulte.

I hurried to the camp of "E" Battalion, a hundred yards away, but that battalion was temporarily under the command of a captain, as the Colonel and the three company commanders had preceded their tanks in the move to Meaulte. "G" Battalion, the third battalion of the brigade, was encamped on the farther side of the wood, four miles distant, and I had no time to go and see who was in command of it. Besides, the Colonel's car had disappeared with the Colonel, and I had no transport except three battered motor-cycles.

So I assumed command of the two battalions and gave instructions for all tanks that were in any way mobile to be filled and loaded. This took a little time, as the petrol dump was some distance away, and we had no lorries. Then, as it seemed to me that if we were about to fight?-?and I certainly did not intend to withdraw?-?we should probably be surrounded, I collected those officers and men who were not actually needed to fight the tanks, and ordered Field, whom I placed in charge, to march them back to Royaulcourt, where I hoped that they would be out of the way.

After I had made these preliminary arrangements I started with Spencer, my servant, in search of the nearest Divisional Headquarters. I had then no idea which or where it was. By this time all the roads into Metz were blocked with transport of every description. The enemy gunners were endeavouring to register on the Trescault road, but they were shooting consistently short or over, and a couple of "shorts" gave Spencer and myself the fright of our lives.

In Metz we discovered the headquarters of the Guards Division. I reported to the Divisional Commander that I was the proud possessor of an odd collection of second-hand tanks. He was not much impressed, but wired the news to his corps and told me to wait for orders.

The cross-roads in Metz about 11 A.M. on the 30th November 1917 would have gratified any German. In spite of the desultory shelling there was, of course, no panic, but the thick confused stream of traffic pouring westwards was unpleasant. It reminded me too vividly of Estrees on the afternoon of Le Cateau, three years before. Mingled with the transport were odd groups of men, the survivors of batteries, stragglers who had lost their units, walking wounded?-?bitter, because they felt that this sudden counter-attack should have been prevented, and sullen, because although they realised that Metz was no place for men who could fight, they did not know what to do or where to go. There is nothing so tragical as the bewilderment of a broken army. For every man who retires because he is afraid, there are a thousand who retire because they are not organised to advance.

The A.P.M. proved himself a man indeed. One minute he would be out in the traffic lashing the drivers with a stinging tongue, until, literally frightened, they would perform marvels of driving, and so disentangle a block of traffic. Another minute he would drive a bunch of stragglers into the courtyard, consigning them with deep oaths to the lowest hell. Or he would interrupt passionately with a wealth of curses a gunner subaltern with three men, who, with tears in his voice, was trying to explain that they alone of his battery had survived, and that they had at least saved the breech-blocks and the sights. The A.P.M. was a huge man with mad blue eyes, but, thanks to his intolerant fury, the stream of traffic continued to flow, and no possible fighting man passed beyond Metz. My own servant, who had lost me in the crowd, was arrested as a straggler.

At about 12 noon a message came through from the Corps?-?

"One battalion of tanks will attack Gouzeaucourt from direction of Fins, and one battalion of tanks from direction of Heudecourt."22

The General considered that this message was an order for me to attack with my two battalions, but as both Fins and Heudecourt were further from me than Gouzeaucourt, which the enemy had taken, I read the message as a piece of information. Probably two battalions of the 2nd Brigade were about to advance. The General, however, desired me to attack.23

I walked back to the wood, and found that in my absence the tanks had been drawn up in line at intervals of one hundred yards to defend the Trescault-Metz road. This unnecessary deployment caused delay, but by 1 P.M. "E" Battalion had moved off to attack Gouzeaucourt from the west, and the tanks of my own battalion to attack the village by the shortest possible route. I did not know how many of the tanks would reach Gouzeaucourt. They were all quite decrepit.

When I had seen my tanks under way I returned to Metz, reported, and waited for further orders. The situation was distinctly obscure. We knew that the enemy had not been able to debouch from Gouzeaucourt, and soon we learnt that the Irish Guards had retaken the village at the point of the bayonet, but the corps told us that enemy cavalry were said to be in Heudecourt, a village south of Fins, and well behind our line. The news from the north was reassuring. Apparently the enemy attack on that flank had been broken.

The tanks of my own battalion had arrived at Gouzeaucourt too late to assist the Irish Guards, but the sight of the tanks on the ridge to the west of the village may have assisted in the discouragement of the enemy, since he made no further effort to advance, although, if he had known it, there was little enough in front of him. Finally, acting under the orders of the infantry commanders on the spot, my tanks withdrew to the neighbourhood of Gouzeaucourt Wood, half-way between Gouzeaucourt and Metz. Of "E" Battalion I had heard nothing as yet.

I went back to cam

p, where I found that steps were being taken to send rations out to the crews. Just before dusk I received a message from the Colonel, instructing me not to become involved and to report to Colonel Hankey commanding "G" Battalion. So Jumbo and I, by now more than weary, tramped round the wood, and after an hour's hard walking came to the "G" Battalion bivouac. I explained the situation to the Colonel, who was most kind and understanding, and informed him that I had placed myself under the orders of the Guards Division, and proposed to continue to offer that Division any help that was possible. Colonel Hankey agreed.

While I was with Colonel Hankey, our Brigade-Major arrived and told us that a lot of nice sound tanks were coming up for our use. He was astonished that I had more than twenty mobile tanks under my command. It seemed that in an official return to the brigade we had shown only one tank as "fit for action." However, he appreciated the course we had taken, and confirmed Colonel Hankey's instruction that I should continue to operate with the Guards Division.

I trudged back to camp through the mud, and, after a little food, finding that no orders had come for me, I walked into Metz, which was by now free of traffic.

The General was arranging a counter-attack at dawn on Gonnelieu and the ridge to the south of it. Gonnelieu was a small village on high ground commanding Gouzeaucourt, and its recapture would be the first step towards regaining the valuable ground that we had lost. To the south of Gouzeaucourt a dismounted cavalry Division had managed to form some sort of line, and this Division would co-operate with the Guards Division in the counter-attack proposed.

The General and his G.S.O.I. were determining the form which the counter-attack should take. We were in a dim and bare schoolroom. The candles on the General's table threw the rest of the room into deep shadow. Outside there was low eager talking in the courtyard, the tramp of a sentry, the rhythmical rattle of a limbered waggon with horses trotting, a man singing quietly, the sudden impertinent roar of a motor-cycle, the shouting of a driver, and then the silly whine and the clear reverberating crash of a shell bursting by night among houses. The General was speaking evenly, without emphasis....

I was called into consultation. Apparently a battalion of tanks from the 2nd Brigade now lay at Gouzeaucourt Wood, ready to assist the Guards. We discussed the counter-attack, and a decision was made. It was becoming dangerously late. The staff-officer hurriedly began to write orders. I left the schoolroom and started to walk up the hill through the frozen night to Gouzeaucourt Wood.

Outside the wood in a rough plantation I discovered the headquarters of a brigade of Guards, and with them the colonel of the tank battalion, with whom I arranged that my tanks should attack Gonnelieu itself, while his tanks should advance with the infantry against the ridge to the south of that village.

A message came through to me from the captain temporarily in command of "E" Battalion that he had lost touch with his tanks, and did not know where they were now. I was in consequence forced to rely upon "D" Battalion alone.

I found my section commanders, and instructed them to move their tanks round Gouzeaucourt Wood, and concentrate to the east of it, so that they could go forward to their final positions prior to the attack without difficulty. I foolishly did not make certain myself that they had sufficient petrol for the fight.

Then I walked over the short grass round the northern outskirts of the wood in search of another brigade headquarters, and ran them to ground in a large tent pitched in the open on the downs. Luckily for me it was a clear night, with a moon and no clouds. The brigade commander had not yet received his orders, and he told me to find the colonel of a certain battalion of Grenadier Guards, warn him that we should make a counter-attack on Gonnelieu at dawn, and arrange, as far as was possible, pending orders from the division, the lines on which my tanks would assist.

I tramped on over the cold bare downs?-?it was now about midnight?-?until, to my relief, I struck the sunken road coming from Trescault. I followed it, and, just short of the first houses in Gouzeaucourt, I found the headquarters for which I was looking in a dug-out at the side of the road.

The Colonel had just returned from an inspection of his outposts. The division on the left was working forward from the north towards Gonnelieu, and the Colonel had been listening to and watching the enemy machine-guns. The village was thick with them. It was doubtful if the division would be able to advance farther.

I gave him my message, and after a few minutes' discussion he sat down to write his orders. The Colonel of the Welsh Guards arrived, and together they analysed the situation.... I hesitate to write of the Guards, and I dare not describe the scene.

I was about to go back to my tanks when two of my officers suddenly appeared, bringing the worst possible news. The tanks had run short of petrol! Their commanders in the hurry and excitement of the day naturally had not realised how much they had used. And it had not been intended that after they had entered Gouzeaucourt they should withdraw all the way to Gouzeaucourt Wood. There was no transport. The lorries were with the Colonel. In any case it was too late. And the attack would take place in five hours?-?the Guards were relying on our tanks?-?Gonnelieu was crammed full of machine-guns. The Colonel had just said so.

I felt sick and frightened. My mind flew back to a morning when I was late for school and stood outside the door, desperate and trembling, miserably wondering whether it would be worse to go in and face the smiles of the class and the cutting words of the master, or to stop away for the whole day on the plea that I was really ill. The Guards were relying on our tanks, and Gonnelieu was crammed full of machine-guns!

A moment before I had listened in apprehension to the shells bursting along the sunken road. Now, throwing my officers a few brief instructions, I dashed up the road, and regardless of shells or anything else, I ran at top speed back to the Brigade Headquarters in the large tent, two miles away. It was an eternity before I came choking to the tent and rushed to the telephone. I called up the colonel of the other tank battalion and besought him to send at least a section against Gonnelieu, for I did not know how many of my tanks would have sufficient petrol to enter the battle. He replied that his tanks had already started for their final positions, but he promised that he would do what he could.

I explained the situation shortly to the brigadier and then hurried off to my tanks. I found the crews endeavouring, with little success, to siphon the petrol from one tank to another. At last, when it had become too late to do more, I sent off those tanks which had any petrol at all in them, hoping that by some miracle they would be able to join in the attack. I had done all I could. I slunk back to Brigade Headquarters and waited in anguish for the dawn. The downs were lonely and cruel that night.

There was nothing of a barrage, for our heavy guns were in the hands of the enemy or dismantled in Gouzeaucourt or without ammunition. A slight bombardment and the Guards stormed up the hill. No news came to us at Brigade Headquarters, but we could hear with terrible distinctness the never-ending chatter of the enemy machine-guns. We tried to deceive ourselves and to imagine that these machine-guns were our own, but we knew our deceit, and we knew, too, that if we had carried the hill and were fighting on the farther slopes of it, we should hear little of the machine-guns.

About 7.30 A.M.?-?it was the morning of December 1st?-?the brigadier and I tramped over the hillside to the sunken road at Gouzeaucourt, passing several machine-gun pits cunningly camouflaged. We crossed the ridge, and as we began to descend I saw for the first time Gouzeaucourt, a cheerful little town in the valley, and Gonnelieu, a jumbled village set on the hillside beyond with the white stones conspicuous in its cemetery, and a church. In a large field below us and on the edge of Gouzeaucourt were hutments, shelled and deserted. They had been left in a hurry, and before one hut was a table laid for breakfast with a real tablecloth. Over Gouzeaucourt and in front of Gonnelieu shrapnel was bursting lazily.

The sunken road was full of wounded. We came to the headquarters which I had visited. They were occupied now by another battalion of Grenadier Guards. For the battalion which I had met in the middle of the night were fighting desperately in the cemetery at Gonnelieu.

The news was disquieting. The Grenadier Guards had not been able to force an entry into the village, while the Welsh Guards on their right had made little progress. Both battalions had lost practically all their officers. They had been withdrawn and replaced by fresh battalions. The dismounted cavalry had managed to establish themselves on the ridge with the help of tanks, but they could make no farther advance until Gonnelieu was cleared. Tanks could be seen on the slopes of the hill. Two, silhouetted against the skyline, were burning fiercely. Of my own tanks nothing could be heard. The Colonel was doing valiant things in Gonnelieu.

Then came a grave rumour: "The Colonel is badly wounded!" but a moment later he walked into the dug-out, his arm in a rough sling and his face drawn with pain. They persuaded him against his will to go to the main dressing station.... The wounded were streaming past, walking wounded and stretcher after stretcher.

I left the dug-out and went in search of my tanks, but there was no sign of them. They were not to be traced, although I walked down to the Villers-Plouich road, and later, coming back up the hill, climbed a little mound and scanned the opposite slope with my glasses. Certain tanks to the right of Gonnelieu obviously belonged to that other battalion. Perhaps a report had reached our camp at Havrincourt Wood, which was, in fact, nearer to Gouzeaucourt than was Metz-en-Couture.

So at last I turned, and more weary than I can describe?-?since, like many others, I had been more or less on my feet for twenty-four hours?-?I trudged up the sunken road and, taking a last look at Gonnelieu and at Gouzeaucourt, struck out across the downs to Havrincourt Wood, a matter of three miles.

At the camp there was still no news. It was now about 11 A.M. I breakfasted and turned in, telling Jumbo to call me if any message came from the tanks.

I awoke at three. The crews had reported. The tanks had not been able to climb out of a sunken road for want of petrol, and had never entered the battle. Of "E" Battalion there was still no news. Tanks from that other battalion had assisted the Guards?-?that was a little satisfying,?-?but the Guards had failed to storm Gonnelieu.

I walked out of the wood into the open. A few centuries ago I had stood on the same spot and wondered why there were bursts of machine-gun fire in the direction of Gouzeaucourt.

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